It all started when a family member, who is more than 80 years old and a long time AAA member, asked me to recommend an auto-repair shop. I went to the Alhambra AAA location and obtained a booklet containing a list of approved shops from which he selected a repair facility.
All was fine for a while, but about five months ago his car began to shake violently upon starting. He took the car to the shop, but they couldn’t fix it. That didn't stop them from charging him more than $700 for routine maintenance. Although he gave permission for the work, I felt the shop may have been trying to take advantage of the family member due to his age, especially since the original problem was not resolved. Unfortunately, the shop twice refused to provide a partial store credit or refund, in spite of my concerns about the high repair bill.
I sent a complaint to AAA, but their investigation found that the services and cost were reasonable, as determined by a comparison to other shops in the area. At that point, I noticed the auto repair shop received a rating of two out of five stars on Yelp, a popular consumer driven business rating system, and was surprised how a AAA-recommended repair shop could receive such a poor Yelp rating.
As a result, I did some research and found AAA recommends repair shops based on many criteria, including passing a site inspection and verifying that the mechanics were certified. But I also discovered that a shop had to pay an initial entry fee in addition to an annual maintenance fee of at least $1,000 to remain on the recommended list. This struck me as a conflict of interest, since AAA had a financial incentive to approve and keep auto shops in their referral program.
As a community contributor for the Alhambra Source, I wanted to write a story about my experience. Instead, I contacted the LA Times, as my editor advised that this was a region-wide story. Times consumer reporter David Lazarus responded when I e-mailed him and found that the repair shop referral program was selective in approving repair shops and appeared to be acting in the consumers’ interest. In a story titled “AAA should disclose business approval fees,” he concluded: "To be sure, you can still get fleeced when you take your car in for service. But it appears that the chances of this happening at an AAA-approved shop are reduced because of the auto club's vigilance. That counts for something. It would still be better, though, to let members know that a shop is paying fees for the privilege of AAA approval. Honesty is always the best policy."
However, it struck me that the Times' story did not clearly explain how AAA conducted its auto repair shop inspections, so I contacted AAA for additional information.
I found that AAA does not actually inspect the auto repair. Instead, it indirectly monitors repair quality through a customer satisfaction survey conducted after the repair service. That lack of professional monitoring means its ratings have a diminished value. With AAA's evaluation criteria, customers may give a good rating to the repair shop, but in many, if not most cases, they don't have the knowledge to diagnose a mechanical issue and are not able to determine if a repair was completed correctly. Was the fuel pump really broken? If a radiator flush was performed, was the fluid replaced by new, clean, brand name fluid, or was the customer charged the same price for a cheaper, lower grade fluid? If a car problem is improperly repaired or not correctly diagnosed, the safety of the driver and passengers could potentially be at risk.
Fortunately, the solution is straightforward. Prior to inclusion on the recommended shop list and periodically thereafter, AAA should conduct unannounced quality checks on repair shops to see if the repairs are necessary, correctly done and match the work estimate given to the customer before and after the repair. Businesses regularly utilize similar techniques with secret shoppers to monitor service quality. While this might require AAA to hire more inspectors and, as a result, possibly raise their membership fees or charge a separate fee for the referral program, I would gladly pay a few dollars more for the peace of mind in knowing that the hundreds of dollars I spend on car problems were for legitimate repairs that were performed properly.